Politics could jam transit operations

Op-ed article, Daily News, August 4, 2002

Last month, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority took its first moves toward better tailoring transit service to local ridership patterns.

It did so by creating a "service sector" in the San Fernando Valley, which now manages the operation of 25 Metro Bus lines by the MTA's Chatsworth and Sun Valley terminals.

The service sector plan -- which was also implemented last month in the San Gabriel Valley and will spread to the rest of the MTA's operations countywide by year's end -- was designed by MTA Chief Executive Officer Roger Snoble to answer concerns raised in recent years by political and community leaders that the transportation agency was not responsive to local needs. Those leaders had been pursuing a "transit zone" that would have split the aforementioned 25 lines away from the MTA into a local system similar to Foothill Transit in the far-eastern portion of Los Angeles County.

Snoble, apparently fearing Balkanization of the agency he was brought in to manage only last year, is attempting to incorporate the stated goals of the zone proponents into the service sectors. This is obvious from his statement, made when he announced the plan in February, that "if service sectors are successful there would be no need to carve out a transit zone."

If one takes at face value the many statements made by the zone zealots in the five years that they have been seeking control, the sectors would appear to answer their concerns.

Snoble's plan puts control of each region in the hands of a general manager with the authority to shape service and reroute bus lines; support staffers -- such as service scheduling and planning personnel, security, and public affairs -- have been relocated to a local management office in Chatsworth.

The San Fernando Valley sector has been given as its general manager David Armijo, former director of operations at the Orange County Transportation Authority; since the Valley's similarity to OCTA has been cited as one reason for a zone, Snoble's choice of a manager with experience at OCTA makes perfect sense and gives the sector a tremendous chance to succeed.

One element of the sectors has not yet been decided by the MTA board of directors: the local sector governance councils.

As envisioned by Snoble, the councils would have oversight of bus routes in their sectors, the types of service to be offered, service frequency and hours of operation. The councils would advise the sector general managers, conduct public hearings, establish standards for service. and approve route and schedule changes.

Los Angeles Councilman (and current MTA Chairman) Hal Bernson has already expressed strong support for some elements of the sector concept. However, as with the zone proposal, politics rears its ugly head when the discussion turns to the composition of those local councils.

County Supervisor Zev Yaroslavsky -- already in a conflict of interest between his service as MTA vice chairman and chairman of the Valley transit zone joint powers authority -- insisted at a recent MTA board meeting that the JPA, having spent several years pursuing the zone, should be placed in charge of the Valley sector.

Debate centered around the wisdom of having sector councils comprised of elected officials and whether political concerns might undermine the sector's ability to improve on the present MTA system. Others, such as state Sen. Richard Alarcón, advocate sector councils of private citizens.

Alarcón has already proposed that the councils be comprised of active transit users, students, disabled passengers, local business owners and a representative of the MTA bus operators' union.

Alarcón, who chairs the state Senate's Select Committee on the MTA, has said in no uncertain terms that the sector councils must "remove politics from the process of transportation planning." I could not agree more. The MTA board must act soon to approve the composition of the sector governance councils.

I believe they must take to heart the senator's position and make those councils representative of the users of MTA service. A member of each sector's Passenger Advisory Council (similar to the PACs that formerly were organized to provide input to various MTA bus yards) should serve on the sector councils, to bring the proper end-user perspective to the work toward restructuring service.

In that same sentiment, I also hope that the new sector councils will revisit the San Fernando Valley Transit Restructuring Study, completed in 1994 but frozen in mid-implementation by the zone proposal since 1996.

While the study undoubtedly needs to be updated, many of the proposed changes in it would tremendously improve mobility for the thousands of daily transit users in the Valley.

And after all, moving passengers more efficiently is the point.

In the following Sunday's edition, a letter to the editor appeared by Charles Thomas, who has disagreed with me many times in the past. Among his "rebuttal" comments:

[Richards] continues to defend a restructuring program that was dropped by the MTA because it turned out to be a complete and utter failure that raised havoc with the MTA system when some of it was first implemented.

The studies were made before the population boom struck the Valley and took away important bus service just as it was becoming needed.

Richards ... has shown very little to offer in the way of bringing better bus service to the Valley.

Mr. Thomas' tirades on Valley transit service restructuring go back as far as 1995; my letter to the editor in the Los Angeles Times of January 29, 1995 was a direct rebuttal of comments similar to the above. My rebuttal of his Daily News letter was not published in its entirety (the edited version did appear on August 20); I have put it on the Transit Insider as one of my rants.

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